Followership – flipside of the leadership coin

The working title of this post was “Followership – because sometimes leadership can go f*ck itself”.

This sentiment seemed to sum up where my head was at after a challenging role which left me taking stock of what I wanted from a career & my life / work balance. I retreated back to my comfort zone to let someone else do the leading.

You may be able to tell, in my funk I was seeing the term “followership” in  a negative light. After studying the topic further I started uncovering the importance of  followers & the related skills of following.

What is Followership?

I first came across the term followership in the book “Leadership is half the story” (Hurwitz & Hurwitz)

The term struck a chord with me – it gave me a label I could hang my hat on, to justify my thought processes.

Followership is the willingness to collaborate with others to accomplish defined & shared goals, typically under some form of leadership.

As I read more about the idea, I discovered there was more to it than I was giving it credit for & some really obvious points I missed on first glance, things like:

  • Arguably leaders need follower/s to lead
  • Leaders typically have more than 1 follower (think of org charts & religion)
  • Leaders were once followers themselves
  • Good followers often become leaders
  • Not everyone can lead all the things

Followership in context

That last point is really pertinent.

Unfortunately, we can’t all be like Donald Trump & a leader of everything.

As we progress with our careers, we get acquire skills & deeper knowledge of a narrower set of topics. Over time we emerge as leaders of those topics.

There’s a whole host of topics that we leave behind as we don’t have time to invest in them as well as our chosen discipline. We don’t become leaders of those topics (nice blog on the Stuart Firestein’s Ted Talk about this idea).

For this reason, we can’t lead all the things – in some areas we have to be happy being good followers (see below).

Background to my Followership thinking

I’d been considering the idea of there’s no such thing as a leader for a good few years since TITAN Conf in 2015.

My thought process back then was no 1 person is leading – they have rafts of people working with them who have deeper knowledge on specific topics, providing them with information & recommendations for decisions.

(Interestingly, I recently stumbled across this post from 2015 alluding to the same thing from a different perspective – is leadership a noun or a verb?)

The term followership seems to give me a more formal framework to hang my hat on.

Two of the most prolific thinkers I’ve come across in area are Robert Kelley & Barbara Kellerman.

Both make the point that waaay more attention is put on leadership compared to followership. This could be related to the fact that leadership, & training leaders, is where the money is…

This attention to leadership makes it cooler to be a leader than a follower – when was the last time you were praised for being a strong or persuasive follower?

Following IS cool!

Why celebrate being a follower? How about these:

  • Following is learning (think of apprenticeships)
  • Following is liberating (with less power comes less responsibility)
  • Following helps achieve a higher purpose (how many single person charities do you know?)
  • Following is the route to leadership

Follower Typologies

Both Barbara & Robert propose that there are different types of followers & they each give us a typology:

I categorize all followers according to where they fall along a continuum that ranges from “feeling and doing absolutely nothing” to “being passionately committed and deeply involved.”

  • Isolates are completely detached – they passively support the status quo and further strengthen leaders who already have the upper hand
  • Bystanders observe but do not participate – they deliberately stand aside and disengage, both from their leaders and from their groups or organizations.
  • Participants are engaged in some way – they care enough to invest some of what they have (e.g. time or money) to try to make an impact
  • Activists feel strongly about their leaders and organizations – they are eager, energetic, and engaged act accordingly.
  • Diehards are prepared to go down for their cause – they exhibit an all-consuming dedication to someone or something they deem worthy.

Robert adds a 2nd dimension to engagement – thinking

Do they think for themselves? Are they independent critical thinkers? Or do they look to the leader to do the thinking for them?

Other typologies are available 🙂

With regards to software testing, I feel i’m an Activist in Barbara’s typology & an Exemplary in Robert’s typology

Qualities of a good follower

So what can you do to be a good follower? Here’s my list of ideas, amalgamated from several sources (linked below)

  • Self-directed – be proactive & engaged, take the initiative 
  • Loyal – to your team & your leader/s to achieve the shared goals
  • Aware – of self, context & others
  • Courageous – question decisions to understand & challenge where appropriate
  • Collaborative – work with your team & your leader/s to achieve the shared goals
  • Critical thinker – think for yourself to help make sound judgments
  • Diplomatic – get along with others who have differences whilst not ignoring those differences (treat others how they like to be treated)
  • Transparent – being clear about your beliefs & intentions shows honesty & helps build trust 

What’s next?

I’m going to start looking at followership in the various contexts I move in, such as an embedded tester, agile / test coach, consultant, speaker, dad & husband.

Followership Resources